'The Greeks' -- confronting moral dilemmas

"Can a good man impart honor to his chilren?" asks Hecuba, midway through the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of "The Greeks." It's a timeless question. Mathematics, history, language, even deportment -- these can be imparted. But morality? From the age of Aeschylus to the era of women's rights, it remains one of mankind's great imponderables.

John Barton's adapatation of Greek texts by Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and (primarily) Euripides, into a three-evening dramatic tour de fource continually raises questions of this magnitude. That is its importance. The power of these three play-sequences flows from the convincingly human ways in which characters confront crucial moral dilemmas usually of the public-man- vs.-private-life variety. Sandwiched between Afghanistan and technological unemployment, our age is ripe for a renewed exploration of the three major themes these works raise: the place of women, the purpose of war, and the nature of the moral laws of the universe.

Staging Greek plays, for most directors, has been an intractible problem. The audience nowadays simply does not know enough of the background to follow a single, isolated plot without cumbersome program notes. So Mr. Barton's condensation is to be applauded. He has been assisted by translator Kenneth Cavander, and guided by his own experience adapting four Shakespeare plays into "The War of the Roses," in 1964. He has disassembled some dozen Greek plays, dramatized Homer's story of Achilles, sprinkled in some Hesiod, and rebuilt the entire cycle.

Now in lucid chronological order, the resulting 10 short plays follow the fortunes of the house of Atreus from the sailing of Agamemnon through the sack of Troy and on to the redemption of Orestes. Into this fabric the probing questions and dramatic cruxes are stitched and restitched.

Well designed by John Napier and superbly lit by David Hersey, the plays (at the Aldwych until March 29) are handsomely acted. Janet Suzman is steadily fascinating, although more effective as comic Helen than as grandiloquent Clytemnestra. Mike Gwilym's motorcycle-tough version of sneering Achilles is excellent, and his tense, impassioned Orestes even better. And Lyn Dearth's Electra is simply magnificent, worth the whole sequence. When any of these three are on stage, the plays are radiant -- although sometimes with a weird and psychopathic light. Billie Whitelaw's Andromache, Tony Church's comic Menelaus, and John Shrapnel's masterfully indecisive Agamemnon are probably irreplaceable. What is more, none of the other actors lets them down.

But like tragic heroes, the plays are not without flaws. At times tragedy shades into melodrama (trivialized by some pleasant but distinctly radio-pops music) and comedy deflates into farce. And, unlike Beckett's tragicomedy, tragedy and comedy sometimes get mixed up together in ways that sap the pure force of either.

There are also problems in tone. You can play this material in majestic declamatory rant or in the straightforward stage-realism of Ibsenesque domestic tragedy. The spare language of the test calls for the latter. But the direction sometimes emphasizes the former, the result being a kind of stylized stage- speak which ought to move the audience but sometimes left me feeling slightly cheated.

Nevertheless, there is a grandeur in the effort, well worth its 14 years in the making. "The Greeks" might not be the theatrical event of the decade. But it surely breaths new life into modern theater, which too often has depended on caricature and too readily asks second-intensity questions about almost-important themes.

It should really be seen in its entirety (the complete trilogy runs all day Saturdays). But failing that, "The Murders' -- the second and although bloody, the most philosophical -- and "The Gods" -- which blends ebullient comedy with deus ex machina resolutions -- are the best. The first ("The Wars")while strong , is harrowing, visually and emotionally, and a little long.

"The Greeks" virtually demands to be seen on stage with this company. Unlike some West End or Broadway show, the power of this production would be dissipated on film and lost among less skillful actors. Chances are, it won't come to you. But if you enjoy seeing what serious theater can tell us in a silicon age, you'll have to come to it.

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